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Project breathes new life into Buffalo Creek

John McCoy
Seeing how one of Buffalo Creek's 192 new stream-improvement structures had scoured a 5-foot-deep pool into the streambed caused contractor Chris White (left) and watershed association president Perry Harvey to speculate as to how many trout the pool might now hold.

MAN - A stream long associated with death is having new life breathed into it.

Buffalo Creek, where 125 people perished after the 1972 collapse of a dam built from coalmine waste, is rapidly becoming one of southern West Virginia's most popular trout streams.

"The change has been pretty dramatic," said Perry Harvey, president of the Buffalo Creek Watershed Association. "For nearly 40 years after the flood, the creek had nothing going for it. Nothing grew in it, and it was littered with trash and debris."

A $750,000 stream-restoration project and the ongoing efforts of dozens of volunteers have transformed 7 miles of the 10-mile-long creek into a place where trout can thrive and anglers can fish without stumbling over someone's discarded television set.

Over the past two years, work crews have constructed 192 structures designed to slow the stream's flow, create a deeper and narrower channel, and provide hiding places for fish and other aquatic creatures.

Chris White's company, Appalachian Stream Restorations, oversaw that effort. White said the creek, dredged and re-channeled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after the 1972 flood, had never recovered.

"A stream of this size and gradient should have a pool about every 100 to 150 feet," he explained. "Before we started, Buffalo Creek averaged one pool every 2 miles. The rest of it was shallow, had no fish-holding structure, and ran straight as a string. The only pools were at places where the corps had to turn the stream to cross under the road."

The wide, shallow, ramrod-straight arrangement caused the stream to flow far too swiftly for insects, crayfish and even minnows to thrive.

"To slow the water down, we trucked in boulders and built cross vanes and j-hooks, and created pocket water by placing some of those boulders in random clusters. We also used logs to deflect currents and create turbulence," White said.

A grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection paid for most of the work. Cliff's Logan County Coal Co., a local mining outfit, donated all the rock needed for the project.

White estimated the company's in-kind contribution at $100,000 or more. "Their participation made a huge difference in what we were able to get accomplished," he said.

Local residents were skeptical of the structures at first, but have since warmed to their presence.

"A lot of people didn't want us putting in structures near their houses because they were afraid they might push the water into their back yards," White recalled. "After they saw what the structures did, and how they attracted trout, a lot of them came back and said, 'Could you put one of those things behind my house?'"

Even before the structures started going in, watershed association officials mounted a grass-roots effort to clear away 40 years' worth of accumulated trash and debris. Three times each year, volunteers from Man High School police the length of the creek, picking up trash and litter as they go.

"They do a remarkable job," Harvey said.

Signs placed every couple of miles along the road remind residents and visitors to help keep the stream clean. "Nasty people litter. Don't be nasty. Help keep Buffalo Creek clean," the signs read.

The cleanup and restoration efforts have been enough to impress state fisheries officials, who this year increased Buffalo Creek's allotment of trout from 350 pounds a month to 525.

Mike Shingleton, the Division of Natural Resources' assistant chief in charge of the state's trout program, toured the creek last year and was impressed by what he saw.

"It's incredible what they've done," he said. "They've taken a stream that didn't have a lot of cover in it and have transformed it into a stream with a lot of cover, a lot of habitat. Those deeper pools will allow trout to survive a lot longer into the summertime."

Trout fishermen are noticing, too.

"During stockings, it's like a traffic jam in here," Harvey said. "Last year, the folks at Uncle Sam's Loans in Man sold 1,500 trout stamps. That's a huge number for this part of the state."

To show their appreciation to the public and to help boost interest in the restoration effort, watershed association officials conduct a "fishing day" for young people at a park located along the stream.

"We do a private stocking of 1,500 pounds of trout, and we give away 150 rods, reels and tackle boxes to some of the kids who participate," Harvey said. "This year's fishing day is scheduled for April 4, and we're expecting 400 to 500 people."

Work is under way now to secure funding for restoration along the stretch of stream between Stowe and Lorado. Harvey expects the effort to cost an additional $350,000.

Jeremy Starks, a professional bass fisherman and fisheries biologist, believes the stream could become as popular with bass anglers as it is with trout fishermen.

"The structure that's in there now would be great habitat for smallmouth and spotted bass," he said. "The bass would be able to handle the warm summer temperatures better than the trout, and both those species are well adapted to living in streams."

The Guyandotte River, into which Buffalo Creek flows, is already popular with bass-fishing enthusiasts, and work is underway to increase its popularity.

"There's an effort getting started to increase the number of river-access spots along the Guyandotte between Man and Chapmanville," White said. "With the mining industry in a down cycle and with the Hatfield-McCoy Trail system gaining popularity, we're trying to increase the number of people who think of southern West Virginia as a destination for quality recreation.

"We want to make people aware that good things are going on down here."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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